If music can be written down, why can't dance?

Music, unlike dance, has a specific written language. Over the centuries, various systems of notation have been invented and used by dancers, but none has even been universally adopted.

And yet the origin of the term "choreography" conveys the concept of a written transcription...It was the renowned ballet master Pierre Beauchamp who, in the seventeenth century, coined the term from the Greek words khoreia and graphein, respectively "dance" and "write". Ballet master at the court of Louis XIV, he defined the five classic positions and the chassé, assemblé and entrechat movements, the latter invented by the Sun King himself.

However there is no extant written trace of the work of the man who choreographed several of the comédies-ballets composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully. In fact, it was one of his pupils, Raoul Auger Feuillet, who, in the early eighteenth century, published a treatise setting out the various steps codified by the dance teacher.

Extrait de "Chorégraphie" de Feuillet
Extrait de "Chorégraphie" de Feuillet

The "Feuillet system" was very popular during its author's lifetime and, after being translated into English and German, it was even used in other countries. There were valid criticisms even so and it soon fell out of use. The very influential Jean-Georges Noverre, Marie-Antoinette's favourite ballet master, subsequently rejected any attempt at written notation: "a good musician will read 200 bars in an instant; an excellent choreographer will struggle to decipher 200 bars in two hours".

Noverre, who invented theatrical, expressive dance, believed it was impossible to capture facial expressions and movements in writing. A century later, the choreographers of Romantic ballets were faced with the same problem.
How can feelings or their star dancers' personal touch be transcribed onto paper?

@Thomas Barwick/gettyimages
@Thomas Barwick/gettyimages

In the end, dancers each adopted their own mnemonic system. Vladimir Stepanov, who transcribed the greatest masterpieces by Marius Petipa, took his inspiration from musical notation: he broke the time down into bars and placed small notes on three different staves to show the position of each part of the body.        

Stepanov left detailed "choreographic scores", which are now carefully preserved at Harvard University. However only someone who has learnt the system is capable of deciphering Swan Lake, The Nutcracker or Sleeping Beauty, and very few dancers have been taught to read it. This is because dancers' professional training is practical, not written, and only a handful of major dance schools currently teach notation methods.

The Paris conservatoire, for instance, runs workshops on the Benesh and Laban systems, which are two modern methods for recording movement in notational form. Although they do not use the same symbols or graphic layout, both set out to dissect and record each movement as precisely as possible, though the expressive aspects are not included.

@Suzi Ovens
@Suzi Ovens

Present-day dance training also uses a new but very helpful tool: video. Video can record everything, including the height, length and depth of movements, facial expressions and the music.

The use of film has always been subject to debate, however. In the early twentieth century, the eccentric Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes company, refused any recording of his productions on film. To recreate The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Petrushka or The Afternoon of a Faun, subsequent choreographers have had to sift through reviews, first-hand accounts and photos of costumes.

Others, such as Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart, have taken the opposite tack and deliberately filmed their ballets so that they can be reproduced. However, recording occurs after the creative process. Even if it is part of the artist's original plan, it is more about film-making than choreography, a combination of direction and production.

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